Stepping into a carrier's store can be like a visit to the candy shop for the gadget junkie, but once playtime is over and it's time to choose just one, the decision can get a bit overwhelming. You'll find Android phones that range in size from tiny to massive, Windows Phone handsets that cover the rainbow in colors and, of course, the ubiquitous iPhone, which has a price point to suit every need. There's also the latest BlackBerry, which melds a familiar name with a brand-new operating system.
Naturally, it's no easy task to sort through the wide number of options on the market today, and it's even more difficult to find the best of the best. That's where Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide comes in handy. Here, you'll find a very exclusive list of the smartphones that we confidently use and achingly desire. Regardless of your financial situation or platform preference, you're bound to find a stellar choice that's a great fit for your needs. So read on as we round up the very best smartphones of the season.
Quite simply, the HTC One is the best, most well-rounded smartphone on the market today. Not only does it fuse exemplary design with chart-topping performance, but it also combines the finest mobile display we've ever seen with a versatile camera that outshines its peers in low light. The HTC One bucks the shortsighted trend toward more megapixels with an innovative sensor, image processor and lens that effectively form the UltraPixels setup. Here, the camera is able to capture significantly more light -- aided by optical image stabilization hardware -- all while keeping file sizes more appropriate for sharing on the web. The HTC One is the new smartphone to beat, by almost every measure but one -- its battery life is adequate, but still trails the best by a good margin.
The bottom line: The HTC One sets a new high standard with its gorgeous display, versatile camera and impeccable design. It's now the smartphone by which all others will be judged, and it's going to be very, very difficult to top the One.
Key specs: 4.7-inch 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) S-LCD 3 display, 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, 4MP rear / 2.1MP front cameras, 32GB / 64GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.1.
Price: $200 to $300 (AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Sprint); $580 or $100 with an installment plan (T-Mobile)
Samsung Galaxy Note II
We reckon it'd be difficult to make a device much larger than the Galaxy Note II without sacrificing pocketability or ease of use, and in this sense, the phone is nearly ideal if you're seeking an extra-large display. The Galaxy Note II's jumbo-sized 5.5-inch screen is well-suited for viewing web and media content (especially if your eyesight isn't all that great), and thanks to its S Pen stylus, the phone's also a capable replacement for a traditional notepad. Combine this with one of the better cameras on the market and a beefy 3,100mAh battery that goes for miles, and it's easy to understand why the Galaxy Note II is a popular choice, regardless of its niche appeal and high cost.
The bottom line: If you're seeking either an extra-large display or stylus functionality, the Galaxy Note II is a great choice that's currently without a rival.
Key specs: 5.5-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412, 8MP rear / 1.9MP front cameras, 16GB / 32GB / 64GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.
Price: $300 (AT&T, Sprint, US Cellular and Verizon Wireless); $680 (T-Mobile)
Samsung Galaxy S 4
Like the Galaxy S III before it, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is an impressive handset that benefits from widespread availability. In this regard, while the HTC One is our favorite Android smartphone, the GS4 is also an appropriate choice if your carrier doesn't offer the One, or if you just want a cutting-edge device with superior battery life, the latest version of Android and best-of-market features. Similarly, the Galaxy S 4 is a great bet if expandable storage or a removable battery are on your list of must-haves. As you'd expect, the 13MP camera delivers impressively detailed shots in daylight, but the One remains a more versatile shooter, which excels in low-light situations. Considering the phone's top-notch performance and gorgeous 1080p display, the Galaxy S 4 checks many boxes in the high-end category, but the handset itself is generic, uninspired and lacks the fit and finish that you'd expect in a high-priced smartphone.
The bottom line: The Galaxy S 4 is your best bet among leading Android smartphones if the One isn't available on your carrier of choice. It lacks the premium design that its high price warrants, but redeems itself with expandable storage and a removable battery.
Key specs: 5-inch 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) Super AMOLED display, 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, 13MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB / 32GB / 64GB expandable storage, Android 4.2.
Price: $200 (AT&T and US Cellular); $250 (Sprint); $630 or $150 with an installment plan (T-Mobile); TBD (Verizon Wireless)
The Nexus 4 deserves special recognition as the only smartphone on this list to feature a true Android environment, just as Google had intended. This alone makes the Nexus 4 worthwhile, since we believe that stock Android is more attractive and less overbearing than the custom software environments that you'll find on the majority of Android phones. What's more, since software updates for the Nexus 4 come directly from Google, you're guaranteed to be first in line to experience new versions of Android. At a price of $299 unlocked, the Nexus 4 is a fantastic value, especially given the phone's excellent performance and build quality. Sadly, the low price of the Nexus 4 comes at a sacrifice of camera quality and battery life -- that is to say, both aspects are fine, just not great.
The bottom line: The Nexus 4 is the best value on the market today. It's also the only smartphone worth considering if you want timely Android updates.
Key specs: 4.7-inch WXGA (1,280 x 768) True HD IPS display, 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 8GB or 16GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.2.
Price: $299 (8GB) or $349 (16GB) from Google
HTC One SV
Even if your smartphone search is confined to the prepaid carriers, you've got at least one great option with the HTC One SV. The phone succeeds by emphasizing quality components where it matters -- most notably, the 5MP BSI camera, Snapdragon S4 Plus chipset, S-LCD 2 display and LTE connectivity. All of that's packaged within an attractive enclosure and sold for a reasonable price. One of our primary nitpicks with the One SV is its aging Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) OS, but if it's any consolation, Jelly Bean is already rolling out in some parts of the world. Naturally, the Nexus 4 stands as another excellent choice for going prepaid (especially with T-Mobile MVNO's such as Solavei and Simple Mobile), which is priced similarly and represents an even better value. That said, it's nice to have options, and the HTC One SV is an excellent one no matter how you look at it.
The bottom line: The HTC One SV takes the prepaid Android smartphone realm to new heights. We love it and think you will, too.
Key specs: 4.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480) S-LCD 2 display, 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus, 5MP rear / 1.6MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.0.
Price: $270 (Boost Mobile); $280 (Cricket)
Motorola Droid RAZR M
If you long for an Android smartphone that's easy to operate with one hand, look to the Droid RAZR M, which is among our favorite compact handsets on the market today. The phone offers enviable performance and battery life within its class, and we're also quite fond of its camera. Beyond its smaller size, the Droid RAZR M deserves consideration if you're unable to splurge on a new smartphone, as it's commonly available for free with a two-year contract. For what it's worth, US Cellular also sells a variant of the Droid RAZR M that's called the Electrify M, but if you have the choice, we recommend the Verizon model, which comes unlocked and ready for global roaming.
The bottom line: Think most Android smartphones are too big? Too expensive? Get the Droid RAZR M and buck the trend with something great.
Key specs: 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) Super AMOLED Advanced display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.
Price: $100 (US Cellular and Verizon Wireless)
Even with its storied past, BlackBerry is essentially the new kid on the block with a brand-new OS that's known as BlackBerry 10. As with any new platform, you're likely to experience growing pains until the software (and ecosystem) matures, but even at this stage, you'll find over 100,000 apps at the ready, along with an operating system that excels at the communication and typing experience. Whether you're a loyal BlackBerry fan or you're simply looking to try something new, the Z10 currently stands as the only way to experience the blossoming world of BlackBerry 10. On the upside, the smartphone itself is thoroughly competent, and it's a safe bet if you're comfortable with life as an early adopter. Naturally, because the Z10 uses a full touchscreen, traditionalists may wish to hold out for the physical keyboard on the Q10. But with a significant tradeoff in screen real estate (and an excellent virtual keyboard on the Z10), the all-touchscreen Z10 seems a better bet for most users.
The bottom line: The Z10 is a very good smartphone and stands as a worthwhile choice if communication is central to your daily life, but you're likely to experience growing pains until the ecosystem matures.
Key specs: 4.2-inch WXGA (1,280 x 768) LCD display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB expandable storage, BlackBerry 10.
Price: $200 (AT&T and Verizon Wireless); $532 or $100 with an installment plan (T-Mobile)
Apple iPhone 5
It goes without saying, but if you want a smartphone from Apple, the iPhone 5 is where it's at. The iPhone 5 is a top-notch device that combines quality construction, an excellent camera and nimble performance, along with unique software features such as Siri and the camera's fantastic panorama mode. Given the handset's compact size, the iPhone 5 is also an outright winner if one-handed operation is on your list of must-haves. With iOS, you'll also find access to a great wealth of apps and content, along with timely updates and freedom from carrier bloatware. The iPhone 5 for Verizon is especially noteworthy; it comes unlocked from day one for use with mobile networks abroad. Meanwhile, if you're willing to pay for an unlocked iPhone 5 in full, snag it from T-Mobile, which discounts the phone $69 below Apple's retail price.
The bottom line: The iPhone 5 ranks among the very best smartphones out there, and it's our top pick among compact handsets. Do yourself a favor and grab an unlocked version, if possible.
Key specs: 4-inch (1,136 x 640) IPS Retina display, 1.3GHz dual-core A6, 8MP rear / 1.2MP front cameras, 16GB / 32GB / 64GB non-expandable storage, iOS 6.1.
Price: $200 to $400 (AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless); $500 (Cricket); $580 or $100 with an installment plan (T-Mobile)
Apple iPhone 4
Let's face it; you can get a lot of smartphones for free on contract that are straight-up cheap. The iPhone 4 isn't one of them. Yes, it's going to get eaten for breakfast in a face-off against today's flagship phones (its lack of LTE is a particular turnoff), but the iPhone 4 has retained much of its original value over the years. You'll still find the same fantastic Retina display, along with an impressive camera, a great media player and access to the same wealth of apps and content. Likewise, the iPhone 4 has also maintained relevance with Apple's latest iOS 6.1, even though you'll miss out on some of the advanced features such as Siri, panorama mode and FaceTime over cellular. If you decide the iPhone 4 is a good fit for your needs, be sure to go with AT&T's version, which offers data speeds that are significantly faster than its peers. You'll be sorry otherwise.
The bottom line: The iPhone 4 lacks LTE and some of the advanced features that iOS offers, but it's a premium device that's friendly on the pocketbook.
Key specs: 3.5-inch (960 x 640) IPS Retina display, 1GHz A4, 5MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB non-expandable storage, iOS 6.1.
Price: Free (AT&T and Verizon Wireless); $250 (Cricket); $350 (Virgin Mobile)
Nokia Lumia 920
Not only is the Lumia 920 one of the most colorful and distinctive smartphones on the market today, it's also one of the most innovative. For starters, its camera features optical image stabilization hardware, which delivers excellent low-light performance and videos that are remarkably stable. Other advancements extend to the phone's curved touchscreen, which can be operated with gloves, and thanks to a polarizing filter, it's more easily viewable in direct sunlight. The Lumia 920 is the premiere Windows Phone 8 device on the market today, and it's also an excellent value. Sadly, the phone is one of the chunkier options we've come across in recent memory -- its advanced camera and wireless charging capabilities are partially responsible here -- which could make it difficult to operate if you have smaller hands.
The bottom line: With a wide variety of colors, innovative technologies and Windows Phone 8, the Lumia 920 stands out from the pack in the very best way.
Key specs: 4.5-inch WXGA (1,280 x 768) PureMotion HD+ IPS display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8.7MP rear / 1.2MP front cameras, 32GB non-expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.
Price: $100 (AT&T)
The HTC 8X ranks among our very favorite Windows Phone 8 handsets on the market today. It shares a lot in common with the popular One X, all wrapped within a premium enclosure that's refreshingly colorful and unique. We're very happy with its ability to capture beautiful photos, although the camera software within Windows Phone is more simplistic than we'd like. The HTC 8X delivers wonderfully responsive performance, excellent battery life and its display is a pixel-dense delight. Its storage is a bit limited, however, and you'll find no expansion options, but this is partially offset by deep integration with Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service.
The bottom line: If you find the Lumia 920 a bit too bulky or you aren't willing to jump ship to AT&T, the HTC 8X stands as a flagship Windows Phone that's nearly without sacrifice.
Key specs: 4.3-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) S-LCD 2 display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 2.1MP front cameras, 8GB or 16GB non-expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.
Price: $50 to $100 (AT&T); $100 (Verizon Wireless); $200 (Cincinnati Bell)
Nokia Lumia 620
If you're thinking that an entry-level smartphone can't be desirable, then you haven't seen what Nokia's been up to recently. Unlike wimpy Android phones that cheap out with low-res displays, the Lumia 620 features a proper WVGA resolution that looks great when condensed into a compact, 3.8-inch screen. The phone's also rather quick, and feels every bit as nimble as the flagship Lumia 920. Combine this with great battery life, plus a camera that handily bests others in its class, and it's easy to see why this one's a winner. The good news doesn't end there, however, because the Lumia 620 also features tons of personality. Its replaceable, two-tone rear shells are delightfully colorful and surprisingly rugged. Also, as a brilliant bit of engineering, the unit's headphone port is contained within the replaceable shell, which makes for an easy fix should any damage occur. You won't find the Lumia 620 available from the carriers, but you can snag it for under $240 unlocked. Very impressive, indeed.
The bottom line: The Lumia 620 is an incredibly compelling option if you're seeking a compact Windows Phone or an unlocked handset. It's also quite a steal.
Key specs: 3.8-inch WVGA (800 x 480) ClearBlack display, 1GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus, 5MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.
Price: From $234 (Amazon)
*Verizon is currently in the process of acquiring AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.